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Why Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, players are making mental health a priority

In Los Angeles during Pac-12 football media day Tuesday, mental health was a frequently discussed topic.

Utah Ute Britain Covey poses after working out in Salt Lake City on April 23, 2019.
Utah Ute Britain Covey poses after working out in Salt Lake City on April 23, 2019. The Ute receiver warns of the dangers of social media when it comes to mental health.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Earlier this week, Team USA star gymnast Simone Biles decided to put her mental health first and withdrew from the team competition during the Tokyo Olympics.

Not surprisingly, in Los Angeles during Pac-12 football media day Tuesday, mental health was a frequently discussed topic.

During the pandemic, mental health received more attention in both society and in sports. College athletes had their seasons truncated due to COVID-19.

At Utah, athletes had to deal with plenty of anxiety, as the Utes played only five games last year. Then in December, star running back Ty Jordan tragically died.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he’s talked extensively to his players about their mental well-being.

“Yes, mental health is a big part of our program as far as offering resources and support. That’s something that our players, it was tough to deal with the Ty Jordan situation, still is. Fortunately our administration is committed. We have a full department that’s committed, that’s dedicated to mental health and counselors that our players can talk to and visit with.

“We try to make it a point of emphasis to our players that it’s not a sign of weakness to seek mental health assistance. That’s part of life,” Whittingham continued. “It’s the same as being physically ill. If you need to get help, see somebody, there’s no shame or stigma attached to that. I think our coaches, our assistant coaches, have done a really good job of conveying that to our players. Our players seem to do a really good job of taking advantage of the resources we do have.”

From a mental health standpoint, that part of his job has changed dramatically during Whittingham’s 35 years in coaching.

“Yeah, it’s become an increasingly — a bigger part year to year. When I played, that wasn’t even a topic. I mean, it didn’t exist. When I got into coaching, it didn’t exist,” Whittingham said. “The last five, six, seven years it’s started to come to the forefront. I think it’s really benefited. I know it’s benefited a bunch of our players.

“Again, it’s something that we continually try to educate them that, ‘Hey, this is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not a sign of being weak or not tough or any of that stuff. It’s reality. Let us know when you’re hurting and when you need some help and we’ll make sure we get it for you.’”

Ute wide receiver Britain Covey said it’s important for athletes to be careful with social media when it comes to mental health.

“I try to avoid social media in the good times and in the bad times. That’s something Simone Biles talked about,” Covey said. “I don’t know if it’s just our generation or if it’s always been like this, but just the tendency to quickly turn on people or criticize people for a poor performance.

“Coach Whittingham is a legend at the U. And yet there will be games when I hear boos from the fans. I’ve often wondered about that. … I go to a Jazz game and people boo their own players after a bad quarter. I wonder if that’s part of what social media’s done to us. I try to be around people who care about me as a person and know where my worth lies, not in my performance. That’s what helps me the most.”

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd stressed the importance of prioritizing mental health.

“That’s huge because at the end of the day, we’re people. People in general see us as athletes. At times they can disregard the actual personal side of it,” Lloyd said. “Mental health is a huge thing.

“It should be a top priority and should be spoken about more and encouraged more to have people speak out when they are going through a rough time. There should be more positivity associated with people searching for help as opposed to negativity.”